I was having my coffee this morning when I saw a really rude Facebook status update. A friend of mine, a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan, was relieved that wide receiver Desean Jackson was talking to Chip Kelly and looking to stay with the Eagles. “Especially,” he wrote, “after hearing that we’re gonna sign Mark ‘Butt Fumble’ Sanchez. Isn’t it bad enough that we already have one crappy Trojan QB on our team?” He was, of course, referring to former USC quarterback and current Philadelphia Eagles backup Matt Barkley.
It was rude, but my friend had a point. The Trojans have not been known for producing the most enthralling quarterbacks in the professional ranks. Matt Leinart, a former Heisman Trophy winner, is currently not on any professional roster. Former USC quarterback Matt Barkley has been less-than-thrilling in his three appearances for the Eagles, somehow managing to amass four interceptions with zero touchdowns.
And then there was the “Sanchise.” The former New York Jets quarterback left USC early against the wishes of former head coach Pete Carroll. He impressed the Jets enough to the point that they traded three players and their first and second-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft to take him as the fifth selection overall. Sanchez’s tenure with the Jets thereafter was mired in inconsistencies. When he wasn’t getting caught eating hot dogs on the sideline during the game, Sanchez was being made the scapegoat for a constantly underperforming Jets offense.
Aside from Carson Palmer (two appearances) and Matt Cassel (one), no Trojan quarterback has made the Pro Bowl. No USC quarterback has ever played in the Super Bowl, either. Yet the Trojans continue to recruit some of the top talent in the nation at the position. Leinart was the No. 1 quarterback in the nation coming out of high school. Current Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler was a four-star recruit, and redshirt freshman Max Browne was the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in his class.
So why do Trojan quarterbacks falter in the pros? The Trojans have every single tool at their disposal to have quarterbacks succeed at the professional level. On top of the world-class talent surrounding them, the team runs a pro-style offense and has one of the largest fan bases in college football. If anything was to prepare a college player for the pros, it’s the near-pro experience of being a quarterback at USC.
USC operates like a microcosm for the professional quarterback experience. But when high school players make the transition from their local and state-level games to the college level, the first aspect of the game that changes is speed. Decision-making is distilled to a five-second blur of jerseys and defenders. The high school game is far more forgiving, and quarterbacks who are able to adjust to adversity without bumps in the road are rare. In theory, creating an environment that allows players to play in a comfortable system eases the transition from high school to college.
This approach is counter-intuitive to a quarterback’s development in one key area: the ability to adjust to adversity. The change in speed between the college game and the professional game is dramatic. The change in pressure is astronomic. Quarterbacks go from representing a single school to entire cities and, in some cases, national fan bases (for example, the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys).
The USC school of quarterback development fails to account for this single crucial factor of a signal caller’s development. Another school that employs a pro-style offense with a massive fan base is the University of Alabama, and the Crimson Tide have yet to produce a noteworthy quarterback from their system. So it’s not necessarily the school specifically, but the system of offense that sets up its quarterbacks for unreasonable expectations at the professional level.
Sanchez struggled to adjust to the NFL for myriad reasons, including the fact that the New York media routinely lambasted him for underperforming. But Sanchez only started at USC for one season and dove headlong into the draft process, setting himself up for the unreal pressure of playing for a professional team without a true idea of what that entailed.
Sanchez’s career at USC was not without controversy. He spent a night in jail on a sexual assault charge that was eventually dropped. The pressure of playing at USC had taken its toll before he had taken his first snap as the starter for the Trojans. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the former Mission Viejo High School star is done in the NFL. Sanchez has had time to learn the speed of the game at the professional level. It’s not entirely unfeasible that he comes back to have a solid pro career.
But the adjustment from the college to the pros is perhaps the most trying transition in an athlete’s life. Sanchez’s rise from USC star to a starting spot for the notoriously unforgiving market in New York City was as meteoric as it was eerily seamless. There was no room for adversity along the way, no festering in a little-known or mid-level program, no chip on his shoulder and no time to pick up the psychological challenges that came with the professional-level learning curve.
How Matt Barkley and Mark Sanchez progress in the overall NFL landscape remains to be seen. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly has the type of up-tempo offensive system that can make or break a quarterback’s career. But the Trojans who enjoyed the convenience of having superior skill players for the majority of their college careers will have to learn how to adjust to the speed of the professional game — quickly.
Euno Lee is a senior majoring in English literature. He is also the Managing Editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Euno What Time it is,” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email Euno at firstname.lastname@example.org.